Introducing debate in the Citizenship classroom

A version of this article by Debbie Newman, Director of the Noisy Classroom, originally appeared in the Association for Citizenship Teaching‘s Teaching Citizenship magazine in summer 2012, an issue which also included an article on using debating techniques to compare parliamentary procedure.

Where do debates fit in?

It’s hard to think of a single issue which you cover in the Citizenship classroom which couldn’t be approached through debate. Should we lower the voting age? Do we need quotas for women and ethnic minorities in parliament, business or our universities? Should we support local causes over international ones? Can young people effect change in their communities? All three of the Key Concepts can be explored in this way. Formal debate is also a Key Process (Advocacy and Representation 2.2a explicitly and 2.2b,c and d implicitly) – it is both the means and the end.

Every unit could be started with a debate to introduce the issues and get the pupils thinking. Or you might choose to end your unit with a debate to consolidate and review your learning. Select a different group of pupils each time and make sure everyone gets a turn through the year. Assess the speakers’ contributions as you would a piece of written work and use the mark towards their overall grade to ensure that spoken tasks are taken just as seriously as written ones. If you are doing examined Citizenship a debate makes an excellent revision lesson.

What do you need for a formal debate?

First you need a topic, which we call a MOTION. This stays the same throughout the debate as opposed to a discussion which might start on one issue and meander into something related or even totally different. An example of a motion might be “This house would ban religious symbols in school” or “This house believes that one person can make a difference to the world”. We phrase the motion “This house…” as we are modelling the debate on the debates in the Houses of Parliament.

Then you need two teams – a for and an against which we call the PROPOSITION and the OPPOSITION. The teams should have three speakers each and might also have additional members who are helping to prepare but not speaking in the debate. It is up to you if you let pupils choose their sides – personally I allocate the sides regardless of their own opinions.

Finally you need a CHAIRPERSON (who will keep order and call on the speakers to speak in turn), a TIMEKEEPER (who will time the speeches – we recommend three minutes for KS3, four minutes for KS4 and five minutes for KS5) and an audience (the rest of the class and/or another class who will listen, make points in the audience debate and ultimately vote to carry or defeat the motion.

When setting up the classroom for a formal debate you need three tables at the front of the room – one in the middle with two chairs for the chairperson and timekeeper, and one on each side with three chairs for the speakers. The tables should be in a V shape to show that the speakers are sparring against each other but ultimately hoping to win over the audience.


The speaking order is as follows:

  • First proposition
  • First opposition
  • Second proposition
  • Second opposition
  • Audience points
  • Opposition summary
  • Proposition summary

Apart from the first proposition speaker, everyone is expected to listen and respond to the arguments of the previous speaker. This is called REBUTTAL.  The second speakers on each side should have new arguments rather than repeating their team mate’s points. The summary speakers respond to the points of the audience and sum up the main arguments in the debate but do not introduce any new ideas.

You can watch videos of debate in the classroom elsewhere on this site.

A formal debate is a flexible tool which can be adapted for the age group you are working with, the size of your class, the time you have available and the size of your classroom.  We have described one format here which has been shown to be effective in a classroom setting but once you are confident you can shorten speeches, add speakers or tinker in any way which suits your objectives – just remember to keep the same number of speakers and the same overall time for both sides to keep it fair. One easy change to make is to leave out the summary speeches and to finish with a question and answer session between the audience and the speakers instead.

More interaction?

If you want to further develop the active listening and critical thinking skills of your pupils, introduce POINTS OF INFORMATION. These allow the debaters to try and interrupt the speaker with a piece of rebuttal and therefore incentivise continual close listening. To do this any speaker on the other side should stand up and say “point of information” and wait. The speaker decides whether to say “accepted” or “rejected”. If they reject the offerer must sit down quietly. If they accept the offerer has 5-15 seconds to make their point and then sit down. The speaker should address the point directly before returning to their speech. Points of information are not allowed during the first thirty and last thirty seconds of speeches (the timekeeper should knock at these times) or at any point during the summary speeches. It helps pupils to understand this tool if they can see it in action, so why not show them a couple of speeches from the website?

What do the rest of the class do during the debate?

The class constitute the audience. They have the opportunity to take part in the audience debate (or you could mandate certain pupils to contribute) and they ultimately decide the debate in the vote. In some classes this is enough but in most situations you will want to incentivise and facilitate greater attention and participation. You could do this in a number of ways including:

  • use peer assessment sheets to enable the pupils to judge the debate
  • make the class journalists who will write up a report of the debate afterwards (or news reporters who will record reports)

You will need to decide whether you want your audience to be silent or whether they are allowed to clap and/or give verbal feedback in the form of “hear, hear” or “shame” and brief them accordingly in advance. In the Noisy Classroom we like a bit of audience participation to keep everyone awake!

How do you prepare the class for a debate?

Before the first debate the class will need to be introduced to the format and rules of debate and given support in how to prepare. For any subsequent debates they can prepare themselves either in class or as homework. Use our pro forma sheets which scaffold the speeches and encourage a clear structure. Encourage and reward speaking naturally from notes rather than reading out scripts.


Two debating lesson plans for Citizenship

Lesson 1: Planning for the debate

Learning objectives

  • To form arguments on issues relating to rights and identity (key concepts 1.2 and 1.3)
  • To use critical thinking to engage with different ideas on controversial issues (key process 2.1a)


In pairs discuss – what can you tell about somebody based on what they wear? Give one example of an outfit or uniform and what you think you can tell about a person from this? Is it important to be able to express yourself through clothes?

Main Activity

Group Work

  • Split the class into up to 4 groups.
  • Give each group one of the following positions
    – For and against the motion “This house would ban hoodies in shopping areas”
    – For and against the motion “This house would not allow religious symbols or clothing to be worn in schools”
  • Allow the group time to brainstorm arguments for their position.
  • Get the groups to form their ideas into between 4 and 6 big points.
  • Get the groups to split those points between the two allotted main speakers for their group. The summary speakers remind the audience of the key points rather than raise any new ones (you may wish to choose the speakers and repeat the activity with different topics to allow everyone the chance to be a speaker).


If you were running a campaign for your group’s position what would its slogan be?


The main speakers need to do any further research and work to prepare the speeches on the provided pro formas (3-5 minute speeches depending on level) and the others must prepare questions to ask from the audience.

Lesson Two: the debates

Learning objectives

  • To form arguments (2.2) relating to rights (1.2) and identity (1.3)
  • To take part in a formal debate (2.2a)


Take a vote (regardless of what group they are in) of their positions on the two topics.

Main Activity

The two debates

Appoint two students to act as chairperson and timekeeper. The order of speakers goes:

  • Propostition (for) One
  • Opposition (against) One
  • Proposition (for) Two
  • Opposition (against) Two
  • Points from the audience.
  • Opposition Summary
  • Proposition Summary

Depending on age and experience levels speeches should be between 3 and 5 minutes long.

Once the first debate is finished, swap over.


Take the votes again – have the debates changed anybody’s mind and why?


Write a newspaper report of the debate summarising the key points (N.B. you might want to let the speakers off!)

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